People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) welcomes the judgement of the Supreme Court delivered today commuting to life the death sentences awarded to 15 convicts lodged in different jails in the country. In doing so the Supreme Court has upheld the spirit of the Constitution and the values of humanity and respect for human life enshrined therein. This judgement was read out in the court today by Justice Sathashivam, CJI, accompanied by Justice R. Gogoi and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh in response to a petition by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, Delhi (PUDR) and 15 individual petitions of the convicts.
In particular the Court has categorically held that retribution has no space in the constitutional scheme. Those convicted to death need to be treated as human beings and basic rights cannot be denied to them. It has held solitary or single cell confinement as torture and that till the rejection of mercy petition death convicts cannot be confined in this manner. Access to legal counsel has to be ensured for all such convicts at every stage when the convicts are lodged in jail.
Recognising that most of those convicted to death are extremely poor people who do not have access to support from outside the jail, and that mercy petitions comprise a half page written by the the jail staff, the judgement has ruled that copies of all court papers need to be provided to death convicts within a week of confirmation of their sentence and legal aid be provided to enable proper drafting of mercy petitions.
The court has held that mercy jurisdiction is not an act of grace or favour but a constitutional duty and responsibility to be discharged scrupulously in accordance with constitutional values. Noting the procedural lapses in this regard the court has ruled that all documents concerning the prisoners need to be placed before the President at one go and the President take the decision within reasonable time to prevent unnecessary torture being afflicted.
The court has also frowned upon hurried or surreptitious manner of executions where convicts and their families are not informed about the rejection of mercy, convicts are not provided time to access to the judiciary after rejection of mercy, and families are not allowed a last meeting with the convict. This was exactly the manner in which Kasab and Afzal were executed over a year ago The judgement therefore states that information of rejection be provided in writing to the prisoners and their families; a minimum period of 14 days before execution can be carried out; and that jail authorities facilitate the meeting with the family. This the judgement rules is necessary since it is “intrinsic to humanity and justice.”
The Court also noted with concern that execution had been ordered for convicts with mental illness. Commuting such sentences, the court ruled regular evaluation of mental health of such convicts, mandatory heath report of physical and mental health after the rejection of mercy and provision of a medical board where the jail superintendent is not satisfied with the health of the convict.
The judgement recognizes that the death penalty is a cruel and barbaric form of punishment. It has therefore ordered that steps be taken to record the agony suffered by the convict during execution through a mandatory post mortem examination of the body.
PUDR once again welcomes the SC judgement as a step in the correct direction so that punishments inflicted on the accused are in consonance with the developing standards of decency in social life.
Asish Gupta and D. Manjit